Online course development, by accident or by design?

Online learning’s growth shows no signs of slowing. The Online Learning Consortium estimates that 85 percent of Americans enrolled in postsecondary institutions have at least one trait of a nontraditional learner. Additionally, 5.8 million students are enrolled in online courses and the number of students who are enrolled exclusively in distance education is rising.

Yet this shifting pedagogical paradigm is having a major impact on those at the heart of a postsecondary education: faculty members. And as technology and student needs change, many faculty members feel trepidation when it comes to developing online courses.

A 2015 report sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation illustrated this point acutely. This report outlined some of the perceptions, attitudes and behaviors that may prevent faculty members from embracing change and innovation in technology and from adopting new teaching methods. Many of the results of this study should not surprise anyone who is in touch with the concerns and stresses faculty face.

Not only do some faculty members distrust online learning, instructors are frequently not provided with the necessary time, training and resources to develop effective and engaging online courses, the results of which leave both professors and learners dissatisfied. These sentiments were echoed in the 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, which revealed that faculty members still aren’t convinced the online experience can provide the level of outcomes as a face-to-face, classroom environment.

Add to the mix the role of instructional designers, who are supposed to help ease the load of faculty members by taking a larger role in online course design.

Yet, the introduction of instructional designers often does not erase faculty concerns, and may even present a political quagmire. Many faculty members approach the relationship with an instructional designer as an unsettling imposition at best and threatening at worst. Faculty members may fear that their autonomy will be infringed and their expertise and authority in the classroom undermined by the imposition of structural standards and methods. Additionally, many faculty members are so overburdened that the thought of developing a course in collaboration with someone else will place even more stress on an already crowded schedule.

At the heart of the resistance may be the feeling that the role of “The Professor” is changing and being diminished, which is a legitimate and personal reaction to a changing educational landscape that often goes unaddressed in trying to motivate curriculum change and innovation. It doesn’t help that some advocates for academic technology boast that it may diminish the need for actual instructors, like in Sugata Mitra’s keynote at EDUCAUSE 2016.

So we’re now tasked with building a thoughtful instructional design method that not only creates a positive environment for developing quality, scalable, customizable online courses but also places the vision of the faculty member at the front of the process — all while freeing them up from the more onerous tasks, such as outcomes mapping. By placing instructors at the center of the course design experience, we create a supportive environment for broader innovation and change. So what strategies can we use to support and empower faculty members in such a way that they feel as though they can confidently invest their time and expertise in quality online course development?

  1. Start by creating effective design teams consisting of a primary faculty subject matter expert, lead instructional designer, and curriculum coordinator.
  1. Allow enough time for course design and support. Generally speaking, two months is a good time frame for course design, allowing at least two weeks to actually build the course. When time is crunched or schedules conflict, consider time trade-offs — ask what needs to be done upfront and what can be addressed through ongoing course improvement.
  1. Build space into course design for authentic faculty personalization. With any online course, there will be elements that are relatively fixed and elements that will be enhanced by the individual faculty member’s expertise and voice. By acknowledging this fact and allowing room for these elements to be in dialogue with each other, faculty members will feel reassured that their unique expertise and perspective genuinely matters in both the course design process and also in the course itself.

The instructional design process should enhance and showcase the offerings of a faculty member, not hinder it. Instructional design support should be a way to let the expertise of the faculty member shine through and create a course that will allow them to focus on what they love: teaching.

These efforts also need to be supported by a wider team and a clear structure that will help keep course development projects moving forward. If your faculty members feel secure and supported and know that their expertise and specialist knowledge really matters throughout the course design process, it will greatly impact the institutional ability to drive innovation and change.

This article was originally published in Inside Higher Ed on February 22, 2017.